If you’ve ever read a Simon Winchester book, you know that it is all about the tangents- a simple concept going in one direction ends up with Winchester going off in eight different tangents, and subtly, without your realizing just when it happens, you end up in several different places you never expected to be.
This is done to perfection in his latest book, “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. It begins, predictably, with the history of the city, told only as Winchester can. His details in chapter after chapter of the city’s history eventually make you forget what the book was about and just revel in the meticulously detailed history. The images of the expensive waterfront properties, and the ship owners who just crashed their ships onto the shore and started businesses in them is priceless, as is the highly detailed stories of those living in thousands of tents until enough homes could be built for themin this quickly-growing city.
The book is backed up with newspaper articles, lawsuits, eyewitness accounts, and many black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book. A picture and story about Ansel Adams revealed that the famous photographer actually survived the earthquake at the age of four, breaking his nose during the quake, giving him his famously crooked nose.
By the time the earthquake events begin, the book is half over, and the events tear down the city that you have gotten to know well, much as it must have been like to the actual inhabitants. Never content to cover only one aspect of an event, Winchester ties together the eyewitness stories, the police versions, the legal ramifications, the mortality and injury rates, and the actual plate tektonics that made it all happen.
The dizzying array of perspectives ends in a fascinating theory about how plate tektonics effect the actual human cultures and civilizations that live near each of the tektonic regions. It sounds a little strange, but his careful description of many civilizations, together with pictures and maps of the regions that they live in, does make the theory sound valid. The hot-headed, constantly-changing atmosphere of California populations and culture, for instance, mirrors the coming together of three fast-changing plates. The calm, quiet and civilized peoples of Iceland, nowever, live at the calmest end of the largest of those plates.
If you like this one, you will mostly likely want to read Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, both similarly constructed in scope and design. In these books, as in A Crack at the Edge of the World, Winchester proves that it doesn’t really matter what he is writing about, he will make it into something strangely compelling.